Swiss Christmas Knot

As I said in yesterday's blog, there have been a number of requests for a holiday breakfast bread that would be less sweet and rich than a Danish Ring, but more complex than a standard loaf of bread.

Well, here she is, the SWISS CHRISTMAS KNOT. It is a diminutive egg bread (not challah) that is twisted into a knot. Yeasty, light and airy, not too sweet, not too rich. The dough is laced with toasted pecans and dried cranberries and flavored with lemon, vanilla and nutmeg. After baking, the bread is brushed with butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar for that extra sparkle. I made a trial batch of the Knot today, mainly to test the concept and, if successful, to photograph it for today's post. By the time my workday was done and I started to set up for the photo shoot, however, there was only one knot left and a scrap of the knot we had cut into to sample with our staff. Apparently, customers were drawn to it like bees to honey.

Thanks to all those customers who challenged me to add this product to our Christmas production. I think we have a winner here. Available while they last, now through Christmas Eve. $5.95 per loaf.

Countdown to Christmas

This is the final week of the Christmas Bakery and we can't wait to get going. Our durable wares are nearly complete, with a few additions and exceptions. We have quite a number of Bûche de Noël to complete and package, and there will be some last minute cakes and desserts to finish, but mostly we will be busy organizing our fresh bread and breakfast pastry production for Christmas weekend.

There have been a few requests for a "holiday" bread, something less sweet than a danish ring and more interesting than a plain loaf of bread. Now for me, the Stollen is the classic Christmas holiday bread. But I can see that it may be too sweet and rich for some people. So I'm giving this request a little thought and plan to make a diminutive, eggy, nutty and slightly fruity Swiss-style weekend bread for this Friday and Saturday. It will either be a braid or a knot; not sure yet. Order it if you like to take a chance at the unknown. In any event, it will be delicious. It should price out at $5.00 per loaf.

And a final word about posting to this blog over the past five months. Besides actually making and baking our product, it's been a lot of work taking the photos, editing them, uploading them, sizing them, positioning them, and writing some more or less 'intelligent' words to accompany them. Mostly it's been a labor of love, except when the damn internet kept going down (which it does a lot with our Verizon DSL connection)  and having to re-do two hours worth of posting. Sharing the visual beauty of some of our rather special baked goods, and informing the world-wide world about us and our bakery, has been gratifying in a virtual way. But, of course, to really know a bakery you have to encounter it in the material world, and to that end our blog is just a tool to get you out of your door and into ours.

As much of an effort as doing both of these jobs has been, first the material work and then this virtual work, I have a hunch that January is going to seem empty and dull. Is it possible that I might actually miss these crazy, busy days?

Christmas Hours

To help you plan your Holiday shopping at Bakery Normand, we want to give you our Christmas Week hours. The Bakery will be closed, as usual, on Sunday and Monday, December 18th and 19th. We will be open at 7:30AM and closed at 5:30PM on Tuesday through Friday, December 20th through the 23rd. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, we will open at 7:30AM and we will close at 4:00PM. If you haven't placed your Christmas orders, please don't delay. Inventories at really good right now, but supplies of seasonal items are sure to dwindle fast. We will be glad to reserve holiday cookies and Stollen for pick up later in the week. All these items are durable and have an excellent shelf life. Breads and breakfast pastries are made daily, but it helps to know in advance if you need specific varieties or quantities. We can only serve you best when we know in advance exactly what you need. Traditionally we stop taking orders at Noon on the day before Christmas Eve; this year that would be Friday, December 23rd.

On Christmas Eve morning, we typically do not answer the phone to take orders because our staff is busy trying to put up all the orders that were placed in advance, and also because the rest of the staff is busy with walk-ins. It is a very complicated process and we have found that adding another variable like a ringing telephone makes the process unmanageable. We are sorry for any inconvenience, but if you haven't placed an order already, you just need to come on down to the Bakery and see what is available. Usually our selection, if you come in early, is very good. Once all the orders are put up (usually this is completed by 8:00-8:30AM), we put the phone back on the hook and are ready to take new orders for items that are still available.

Sometimes this whole process makes me feel like the Soup Nazi, saying, "No bread for you!" But seriously folks, the last two days before Christmas are insane at the Bakery, they always have been. So it is imperative that you order early to help us make it go smoothly.

The Home Stretch

Today the final batch of Dresdner Stollen  was baked for this Holiday Season. That's it. That's all she wrote. Now, to some this may seem a bit early to be wrapping up any part of our Christmas production. But the reality is that  there are only 9 more days until Christmas, and if you take into account that two of those days, Sunday and Monday, December 18 and 19, the bakery is closed, then there are really only 7 more production days left. And as we get closer and closer to the final days before Christmas, the pace quickens, especially in the retail store, to the point where there aren't enough hours in the day to keep up with customer demands. Factor in as well that most of the products we make, whether for the holidays or, really, for any day, involve very complicated recipes and methods, then it becomes clear that without long-range planning and strategy, the magic of the Christmas Bakery just couldn't happen.

So, with all that in mind, the final Stollen is baked and in the books. We still have inventory of all four of our Stollen varieties, but if you wait too long, your choices will become limited.

The same applies to all of our Holiday specialties. Going forward, once the inventories are exhausted, that's it until next year. So, once again, place your orders soon so that we can reserve any specialty item that you really want to have for Christmas. All of our cookies, whether the standard tea cookies or the special Christmas cookies will keep very well through the New Year. Our Stollen will keep into January without exception. Our focus for the remaining seven days will be on cakes, tortes, desserts and all of our yeasted breads and breakfast pastries. Indeed, our focus going forward will be on meeting our customer orders, whether for Christmas parties or for Christmas Eve. The camel is about to pass through the needle's eye. It is a busy and exciting time at the bakery, seasoned for me, as it is every year, with a large dose of tread. This is why, since before Thanksgiving really,  I am fond of asking "Is it January yet?"

Today we introduced of first Bûche de Noël of the season. The main cake is a yellow roulade brushed with rum and filled with chocolate butter cream. The exterior of the 'log' is banded with chocolate butter cream and decorated with a kitchen sink worth of accessories: a marzipan elf, gingerbread men, Spekulatius leaves, butter cookie stars and moons, chocolate pine cones and walnuts, and meringue mushrooms. All of it is attacked with a blizzard of powder sugar. It is another example of what I like to call a 'pull-apart-dessert." Eating the Bûche is a deconstructive process more akin to demolition. A lot of fun for young and old.

There will be some Bûche available for walk-in customers, but to be sure there will be one for you at Christmas, please order ahead.

Some other items which make an appearance this weekend and complete our bite-sized Holiday Specialties are:

  • Meringue Mushrooms, light,airy and crunch meringue sandwiched together with dark chocolate

  • Black & White Cookies: our classic vanilla and chocolate tea cookie dough, painstakingly combined into checkered squares. Buttery and not too sweet.

Some New Additions to the Christmas Bakery

Once again Patty has brought in a perennial favorite for the Advent Season- Sugar Plums. And just in time for this year's production of The Nutcracker at The Academy of Music in downtown Northampton. These sweet and tangy jellies are a popular item, so get them while the supply lasts.

And from the kitchen we have a few baked additions to present.

The first is a sweet and simple addition to our Butter Tea Cookie selection-the Gingerbread Man on the Moon. A dark chocolate moon crescent cookie is dipped in white chocolate and accented with gingerbread men sprinkles. Fun and tasty!

The second addition is our Large Spekulatius Cookies. Made with our spicy almond dutch cookie dough, the knave and damsel figures are molded from hand-carved wooden molds.

Baked on a bed of sliced almonds, these cookies are a full 8 inches tall. Enough for one, enough to share.

Stop in this Holiday Season- always something tasty, always something unique.

Saint Nicholas Day

Tomorrow, December 6th, is Saint Nicholas Day. In much of Northern Europe it is a very popular 'holiday' in the early Advent Season. Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century bishop in present day Turkey and has been venerated since as a patron saint of children, students, sailors, and others in need.

In Germany and the Netherlands it is customary for children to put their shoes outside their bedroom doors on December 5th in anticipation of Saint Nicholas filling them overnight with treats such as fruit, nuts and sweets. Naughty children could expect to receive straw switches or lumps of coal. This tradition anticipates our custom of hanging stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that they will be filled with small treats and presents.

My own personal experience with the Saint Nicholas Day tradition came when Patty and I were living and baking in Germany. For us as Americans it was not a tradition we grew up with. We were living with the Biss family in Koblenz, Germany at that time, and I was working at a bakery, Konditorei Stock, during the Christmas season. The Biss are a wonderful family of open-minded and generous Germans who invited us to live in their home with their three young daughters between the Spring of 1977 and the early Summer of 1978. It was a household filled with laughter, love, some good mischievous fun, cooking, baking, music and singing. They were always supportive of our endeavors and helped us beyond anything we could have expected from strangers. (How we came to meet them is a story that deserves telling at another time.) We felt so bound to them that, when our first son, Peter, was born, we asked Hermann and Ursula Biss to be his godparents. Our connection was recently renewed when their grandson, Tim, was attending Amherst Regional High School in October as an exchange student for four weeks. Visiting with him and talking about his mom, who was 14 when we first met her, and his grandparents, who are now in their 80's, was a wonderful and sometimes strange occasion to connect the present with the past. After all, we knew people he has known all his life, but from a time frame long before his birth.

It was December 5th, 1977 and I came home from the bakery as usual in the early afternoon. As was my custom, I took off my flour and sugar encrusted work shoes as I entered the front hall and placed them on the top step just inside the door of the basement stairs. They definitely were not shoes for wearing inside the house. I never really thought about how dirty my shoes were becoming over time; I just routinely put them on in the early morning before work and took them off after work when I got home. What I didn't realize was that those shoes must have been a curiosity to the Biss family; they were a testament to the otherness of the work life that these American strangers had introduced into their home, and perhaps also a puzzlement about my indifference to how messy I had allowed my shoes to get.

How surprised I was, how grateful, and perhaps a little embarrassed too, when I went to the cellar stairs on the early morning of December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, to find that my cruddy work shoes had been polished clean, every nook and cranny, from toe to heel, shiny and like new, and filled with oranges, chocolate and nuts.

They say that the best gifts to get are the ones you least expect. I will never forget that gift, and I'm sure there was a greater bounce to my step all that day at work.  But from the other side of this story, I think that the best gifts to give humble the giver in order to tell the recipient how much you care. If it's true that you shouldn't judge another man until you've walked in his shoes, what must it say about a man (or a woman, or a family) who would stoop to clean them?

God Bless You, Familie Biss!

Happy Saint Nicholas Day!

The Christmas Bakery in Full Swing

Without exaggeration this past week has been one of the most productive weeks for me and my team at Bakery Normand. We didn't just slide into the Holiday Season, we leaped with abandon and energy, casting aside all doubts and fears. For a brief time on Friday, I thought that there were only two more weeks until Christmas; that's when the doubts and fears really started to creep in. Then someone told me to relax (something I'm not inclined to do in any event) because there were, in fact, three weeks more until Christmas.

This week saw the introduction of some of our more popular Christmas cookies, included various Macaroons (Almond and Hazelnut), Hazelnut Crescents, Lebkuchen Ornaments, Anise Cookies, Gingerbread Boys and Girls, Spekulatius Cookie People, and Polar Bear Paws- a variation on our popular Bear Paws, but with the substitution of red currant jelly and white chocolate in place of apricot jam and dark chocolate, and with the addition of red, white and green sprinkles on the white chocolate tips.

But the highlight of the week was the introduction today of perhaps the two best baked goods we make at this time of year. Both are my personal favorites, and judging by the number of calls we've been getting asking when they will be available, I'm guessing that there are many fans out there. The first product is our proprietary Black Forest Stollen. It's the last of the four types of Stollen we make every year and it is by far the best tasting. Made with the same base dough as our other Stollen, we add sweetened tart sour cherries soaked in Kirschwasser liqueur and rich dark chocolate chunks. It is our interpretation of the classic Black Forest Torte, only in Stollen form. To our knowledge, when we started making this variety 20 years ago, no one else had gone in that direction before. Because Stollen tends to be rich and sweet, the addition of tart dried fruits and a  more bitter chocolate creates a wonderful balance.

Now that all our Stollen varieties are in the store, I can relax. Of course, more batches of each are in the pipeline in the coming weeks, so my work is far from done. As long as the demand is there and my time allows, I'll try to keep up with the production. But I would urge everyone not the wait until the last minute to stock up on Stollen for yourself or for gifts. When time runs out, so will the supply.

I would also like to underscore that Stollen is not your proverbial holiday fruitcake, something to throw out with the tree. It is, rather, a rich and flavorful, sweet and delicate yeasted confection that marks the pinnacle of yeasted German breads. Its characteristic use of cardamom, nutmeg and lemon as spices and flavor notes evokes, at least for me, the essence of the holidays. It should be sliced thin and served with a strong coffee or tea, or even with a glass of schnapps. It should never be toasted, and if stored cool and dry, it will keep for several months.

The second product which completed our production this week is Spitzkuchen,

Spitzkuchen translates as 'pointed cakes.' The gingerbread dough used in their production is the lebkuchen dough I've mentioned in previous postings. The lebkuchen dough was made in early November and stored in our cool basement to rest and mellow. Once the proper flavor and acidity level is reached, the dough is ready to be leavened and baked.

Spitzkuchen is made from the same dough as our Lebkuchen Ornaments. The only difference is that the Spitzkuchen dough is enhances with currants. Like the Lebkuchen Ornaments, the Spitzkuchen dough, once baked, is hard and tough. It must be re-moisturized by wrapping it in damp towels and sealing it in plastic bags overnight.

The next day, once the dough has softened up, the individual pointed shapes are hand-cut and hand-dipped in dark chocolate.

Spitzkuchen are incredible. They are, perhaps, the most anticipated product we make at the bakery at any time of the year. And they are only available until New Year's. Words cannot describe the unbelievable flavor and texture of these spicy, addictive morsels, and I would encourage anyone reading this who knows and loves this product to email me your impressions. Perhaps by sharing your enthusiasm, you can persuade others to give them a try.

As the season progresses, please check our "Christmas Specials" page for a more comprehensive list with images and explanations of all the holiday goodies available during this party season. And remember to order early if you need large quantities or if you have specific and unusual requests.

Making a Sharp Turn After Thanksgiving

One of the most difficult parts about running a very small retail bakery is figuring out how to quickly transition from one season or holiday to another. Most of the year this transition occurs gradually, mainly because seasons don't turn on a dime and the major holidays are pretty widely spaced out. Except for the Thanksgiving to Christmas turn-around. It just doesn't happen quickly or smoothly for us. It never has, and it probably never will. Once Thanksgiving production is under our belt, we're pretty much physically exhausted. And usually our product inventories are decimated as well. And since we don't enjoy that long Thanksgiving holiday weekend like normal folks, we're back at our bench and behind the counter on Black Friday morning. Somehow we're suppose to flip a switch and transform the bakery into a Christmas wonderland in a single day. Like I said, it has never happened and probably never will.

But over the coarse of the past week we have been working hard to put our elf hats on straight and fill our shop with some very wonderful and, for many customers, much anticipated holiday season specialties. In the coming days I'll post regularly, featuring the unique products that have made Bakery Normand the destination bakery for the best Old World Christmas treats in the Valley.

Back in November, I posted a piece about Lebkuchen called "Lebkuchen is Coming." The story begins there because the gingerbread dough, known in Germany as Lebkuchen, must be made a good month ahead of the final production in order for the dough to develop its unique flavor and character.

This week some of that dough was transformed into the charming Lebkuchen ornaments that our shop has featured for the past 31 years. Literally, Lebkuchen translates as the 'cake of life.' Since ancient times people have baked honey sweetened cakes in the shape of animals and people. At important holidays, these cakes were offered to the gods to assure prosperity, health and peace, and to dispel bad things. Perhaps these cakes replaced real human and animal sacrifices to the gods, in the sense that the spirit of the person or animal was transferred to the spice cake. Eventually, people exchanged these cakes with each other as gestures of good will. Our Lebkuchen is made with the kinds of ingredients our ancestors would have used: wheat and rye flours, honey, brown sugar and rare spices.

Our Lebkuchen Ornaments sparkle with a varnish-like glaze, which is, in fact, a natural and edible product. It's also a secret!

Our ornaments will keep for years if left out in the open air. We personally have kept some lebkuchen ornaments since the early 1980's. We store them in tins along with our other holiday ornaments; and as long as the mice don't get at them (because they are, after all, very nutritiuos treats) we are able to re-use them year after year. The key is to store them cool and dry, mostly dry. Lebkuchen ornaments are, however, completely edible. Simply wrap them in a damp towel, place them in a plastic bag, and let them sit overnight. The next day, your Lebkuchen will be tranformed into a soft cake that may then be eaten. You probably won't want to re-constitute old ornaments which have been saved from previous years, but this year's fresh Lebkuchen will be just fine.

Quantities of our ornaments are limited, so come in early while the selection is good.

We also make two types of Old World Saint Nicholas Lebkuchen Ornaments for Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th,

We also have a great selection of Advent Calendars, including Chocolate Advent Calendars. Shop early for these because they sell out early every year.

Saint Gallener Bread is Back

Saint Gallener Bread, also known in Switzerland as Sankt Gallenerbrot, was a staple bread at Bakery Normand for many, many years. For some reason, over time, it went out of favor....except with a hardcore group of fans who had discovered that it was the best bread to use in their turkey stuffing. Now, I personally have not tried using this bread for that purpose. Mostly I like using it as an all-purpose sandwich bread. It is a hardier bread than our French Loaf because it is enhanced with 10% medium rye flour and 10% cornmeal. This addition lends to the crumb a bit of tooth and a more complex flavor.

In Switzerland it is the signature bread of the city and German-speaking region of St. Gallen. Characteristically, it is baked as a free-form bread with a complex form of pulled and tucked tails and a round head. Some Swiss bakery websites even say that this bread shape has a 'nose' (Nase). Yeah, well, whatever; we used to make this unique shape alongside the more conventional Pullman pan loaf pictured in this post. I think most people in our market thought the traditional shape was a bit odd, and so it was never as popular as the loaf pan shape. Below is an image of St. Galler Brot from a Swiss website:

See what I mean!

So for those of you who would have been asking us if we were going to be making St. Galler Bread for Thanksgiving...we beat you to it. We will be offering this wonderful bread through Thanksgiving. Order it for Wednesday, November 23rd, or pick up a loaf or two early so you can dry it out for your turkey stuffing. Either way, you will have the pleasure of an all-purpose, simple, flavorful, and honest loaf .

Ordering Ahead for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, so we would encourage you to place your orders early. It is always difficult for a small bakery like ours to meet the increased demands from customers around any holiday. Our kitchen, our ovens, and our baking crew is only so big, so organization is critical if we are to produce three or four times the amount of goods using the limited tools available to us. You can help us by planning early and placing your orders in a timely manner. If you go to the 'Thanksgiving Specials" tab on our page bar just above the "BAKERY NORMAND" header you will find our specials page, with a complete listing of breads, pastries and desserts for Thanksgiving. Since we won't be using the website to accept orders, please call the bakery and place your order directly with a sales person. They should be able to answer any questions you may have and to suggest items you may not be aware of. If you have an unusual request, or feel that the sales staff was not able to help you on the phone, email me through our website and I will try to help you personally.

I have often thought of holiday production in biblical terms in the sense that it's like trying to pass a camel through a needle's eye. It is nearly impossible and always stressful. With the many and varied orders that we receive it is difficult to keep everything straight; but we are aware that nothing but 100% success will do. Unlike a test at school, a 95% grade means that we have failed and disappointed 5% of our customers. For those customers our grade is 0%.

We want to make sure that you get what you want, when you want it, and exactly as you ordered it. You can help us do that by placing your order early, and with clear and exact details about produce type, quantities, pick-up times, contact person name and correct phone number.

Say Cheese Crackers...

Back again for your holiday party needs, we are happy to present this season's first cheese crackers. Our crackers are a blend of butter, Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, egg yolks only, and our special blend of spices. They are rich yet delicate. We cut them into various bite-size shapes like hearts, stars, moons, disks, ovals, etc. and top them with a variety of seeds, nuts and herbs. Sold by weight, you can get just the amount you need for that special occasion. These cheese crackers are always anticipated by our regulars, so try them soon and see what the excitement is all about.

Dresdner Stollen

Today marks the official beginning of the Holiday Season at Bakery Normand with the first appearance of our prized Dresdner Stollen. This variety of Stollen is the classic original made with raisins, currants, lemon peel, orange peel, and ground and slivered almonds. Our Stollen is made exclusively with butter and is flavored with almond and lemon extracts, nutmeg and cardamon. Our recipe was passed on to me at the first bakery in Germany where I worked in 1976. The Master Baker in the kitchen of Bäckerei Kaiser, Joachen, had fled the Eastern lands in advance of the Russian army and had ended up settling in the area around Wiesbaden in then West Germany. Originally he came from Dresden, the official home of Stollen in Germany. So I feel quite confident that the formula we use for our Stollen is as close to the real thing that you will get on this side of the Atlantic.

As I said, our Stollen is made with butter, lots of butter. This makes our Stollen a rather expensive item, but butter also explains why our Stollen will keep for weeks and months if stored in a cool, dry place. Butter, as every good baker knows, is a natural preservative.

Not only is there a generous amount of butter inside each Stollen, but additionally, each Stollen is brushed with liquid butter three times after is comes out of the oven. The next day, after the Stollen has cooled and can be handled, each loaf is brushed again with melted butter, rolled in vanilla sugar, and then coated with a thick layer of powder sugar.

Stollen is a yeasted bread; it is actually the crowning achievement of German yeasted breads. Not to be confused with normal bread, Stollen is more like a confection and should be sliced very thinly when serving. Stollen should never be toasted. Anyone selling you a Stollen who claims that it is great toasted is selling you fruited bread, not real Stollen.

Stollen gets better with age and will last several months....of course, no great Stollen should hang around that long; it's an indulgence you should recklessly indulge.

For those of you interested in the unique shaping of Stollen, I've included here a few photos of the process we use employing a wooden pin.

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Bakery Normand
192 Main Street
Northampton, MA 01060

Tuesday to Saturday, 7:30am-5:30pm

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